A former police station, Tai Kwun, or ‘big station’, repurposes 16 historic buildings as cultural spaces in the heart of Central
Hong Kong’s Central Police Station (CPS) compound contains the first permanent civic structures erected by the colonial government after the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, which ended the First Opium War, ceded Hong Kong to Britain. Decommissioned in 2006, Tai Kwun (‘big station’, as the site was colloquially known) is now home to a newly opened Centre for Heritage and Arts – an example not only of Hong Kong’s recent spate of adaptive reuse of historic architecture, but also the newest addition to a rapidly growing ecology of contemporary art institutions in the Special Administrative Region (SAR).
Designed by a global team lead by the Basel-based Pritzker Prize winners Herzog & de Meuron (HdM), along with London-based conservation architects Purcell and the Hong Kong firm of Rocco Yim, CPS has been transformed from a low-rise enclosed compound to a mix of cultural and food and beverages (F&B) venues and publicly accessible open areas. A rarity in space-scarce Hong Kong, the complex carves out a much-needed 14,500 m2 green and cultural ‘lung’ in the middle of the commercial concrete jungle of Central.
The CPS compound was built on a steep terrain around two large open spaces – the southern, lower Parade Ground and the northern, upper Prison Yard – in courtyard-like layers. The historic masonry buildings included the former Police Headquarters, the first Magistracy building, several residential units for police officers and magistrates, and the Victoria Prison. The renovation and operation of the site has been led by the Jockey Club, Hong Kong’s powerful public-private entity known for its philanthropy and, more recently, cultural commissions.
The Jockey Club’s choice of HdM as architects of the redevelopment is unsurprising. From London’s Tate Modern and Madrid’s CaixaForum to the more recent Museum der Kulturen in Basel and Musée Unterlinden in Colmar, their work has put adaptive reuse on the international cultural map with their exquisite creations of high-quality museum spaces in heritage buildings. Contemporary art has been central to the firm since the founding duo’s (Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron) early collaborations with the likes of Joseph Beuys, Thomas Ruff, Remy Zaugg and others, and since Herzog’s own beginnings as an artist.
Starting in 2007, the CPS compound underwent three rounds of concepts. An initial proposal, composed of bamboo-scaffolding inspired volumes rising into the Hong Kong skyline, gave over to a second design featuring floating volumes following public feedback. The third, realized scheme reduced the additions to conform to a stringent outline zoning plan that preserved much of the existing historic compound. The resulting spaces of the third scheme, maximizing what was prescribed by zoning guidelines, fortuitously preserved the area as a rare low-rise urban oasis amidst the high-rise density of central Hong Kong. Acupunctural in intervention, two new polished cultural vessels – containing the art spaces JC Contemporary on the site’s eastern edge and JC Cube on the western edge of the upper courtyard – hover above the masonry base of the historic granite walls. In a classic HdM gesture, these metallic volumes are wrapped by porous 120 x 40 cm cast-aluminium blocks that resonate with the elemental construction units of the existing site. (Nuanced, rather than literal, referencing of the context distinguishes HdM projects’ brilliance.) These create two new monolithic masses visible from afar. From the two view corridors of Staunton Street (looking from the east) and Arbuthnot Street (from the topographically higher north), the perched volumes signify the new cultural functions of the compound. By lifting these spaces off the sloped ground, new entrances are also created, providing a new east-west public route through the compound’s upper open space, the Prison Yard.
While the lower open space of the Parade Ground will be surrounded by commercial and F&B venues as well as flexible spaces for public exhibitions devoted to heritage, the Prison Yard is where the new cultural venues of Tai Kwun are concentrated. (Former police staff quarters off the Parade Ground have also been converted into accommodation for a future artist residency programme, facing Hollywood Road.) The new additions around the Prison Yard will contribute to the 15,000 m2 of new exhibition galleries and a new multi-purpose performance space. To connect the northern and southern compounds, bridges penetrating the maze-like agglomeration of buildings will offer a new hierarchy of pedestrian access, both from Hollywood Road in and within the compound itself.
‘Tai Kwun’ is clearly a Cantonese, rather than Mandarin, name – in some ways asserting the aspirations of the recently inaugurated Tai Kwun Contemporary, the complex’s contemporary art programming arm. Modelled on the European Kunsthalle, Tai Kwun Contemporary is a non-collecting, non-profit organization focused on local collaborations and showcasing emerging Hong Kong, as well as established international, artists. Under the helm of Tobias Berger – a former director of ParaSite, one of the earliest and most renowned artist-run institutions in the city – the first, albeit limited-entry, exhibition opened on the occasion of Art Basel Hong Kong in March. (Because this first show was opened when the entire compound was still officially a construction site, visitors were required wear construction gear, adding to the performative experience of the new spaces.)
Entitled ‘Rehearsal’, the show brought together pieces from the likes of Carl Andre and Nam June Paik with more recent works by artists including Karin Sanders and Lee Kit. It also revealed the exhibition possibilities of Tai Kwun Contemporary, which is seamlessly connected to the adjacent retrofitted former Prison Admissions Hall F. Arriving via the tactile needle-gun-surfaced concrete spiral grand staircase, the exhibition spaces in the new wing are recognizably and wonderfully HdM. Tai Kwun’s first public exhibition – ‘Dismantling the Scaffold’, programmed in collaboration with Christina Li, formerly director of city non-profit Spring Workshop – opens on Saturday 9 June.
The contemporary art ecology in Hong Kong is blossoming: along with the impending opening of the M+ Museum of Visual Culture (also designed by HdM), slated for 2019, HQueens, a tower filled with blue-chip commercial galleries including David Zwirner and Hauser & Wirth, opened down an escalator from Tai Kwun earlier this year. Further down Hollywood road, former police married-staff quarters have been transformed into a cluster of creative spaces, while the Nan Fung Group’s soon-to-open The Mills, repurposes a former textile factory as a new contemporary arts centre. Despite ongoing anxieties in the countdown to Hong Kong’s return to mainland, Asia’s world city is cleverly harnessing its privileges of being an SAR and, as exemplified by Tai Kwun, sowing the long-term seeds of culture.
Main image: Tai Kwun, Hong Kong. Courtesy: Tai Kwun, Hong Kong